Barry Paris' top 10 list
Penelope Cruz in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which came in at No. 5 on PG film critic Barry Paris' best-of list.
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Richard Nixon, Harvey Milk, George W. Bush and Che Guevara -- a bridge foursome made in hell (three guesses who's the dummy) but a quartet of high-octane political biopics made in Hollywood this year.
"Milk" gives us the most nutrition, and emotional inspiration. If you got "Milk," you got Gus Van Sant's straight presentation of a gay icon -- the first open homosexual elected to public office in America. Most of all, you got Sean Penn's terrific portrayal of caring, charismatic Harvey, whose term on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was cut short by a loony colleague's bullets in 1978. I'm calling "Milk" the year's best film for its soul as well as its storytelling.
But I call Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" a close second for giving us the perversely fascinating Tricky Dick to kick around again in a 1977 confrontation between that disgraced president and that deceptively superficial TV talk-show host, David Frost. The former aimed to resurrect his legacy; the latter, his career. The resulting duel of wits produced the only public apology Nixon ever made for his crimes -- though it wasn't really as epic as it pretends to be. What's epic is Frank Langella's brilliant, meticulous performance -- infused with Nixon's guile and bile in equal measure.
And I call "W" a close third (who says I'm obsessed with politics?): Oliver Stone's wonderfully jaundiced take on George W. Bush chronicles him from his wild alcoholic college days through his nepotistic business deals and sibling rivalry with Jeb, the stolen 2000 presidential election and the chaotic eight years of his war-loving reign. Josh Brolin does a brilliant impersonation. Richard Dreyfuss' Dick Cheney is a delight, Thandie Newton is an uncannily perfect Condi Rice. Throw in James Cromwell as Poppy Bush and you get something close to black comedy -- as well as a horror film.
"Che," with Benicio Del Toro much-lauded in the title role, unfortunately hasn't yet made an appearance in Pittsburgh. So, in good contract-bridge fashion, we'll finesse him and list the Rest of the Best:
Pixar came through with another exercise in global heartwarming, set in 2700. Humans have long since vacated uninhabitable Earth, leaving behind a crew of robots called WALL-E's (for Waste Allocation Load Lifters, Earth-Class) to clean up the mess. They're mobile trash compacters with brains, and somebody forgot to turn off the last one, who hitches a ride with EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) to a distant galaxy controlled by the "Buy & Large" corporation. Writer-director Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") one-ups himself with a lovable hero, cutting-edge humor and fantastically imaginative digital animation.
5. "VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA"
Spain's most gorgeous city is the scene of the little crimes and misdemeanors that fill Woody Allen's delicious romantic comedy. Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) have come for a joint summer vacation but with very different needs: Cristina and her life always fly standby. Vicky never goes anywhere without a nonrefundable roundtrip ticket. Tall, dark, handsome Javier Bardem, fresh from his stormy marriage to Penelope Cruz, invites the Americans to spend a three-way sex weekend with him. One of the gals is outraged. The other, intrigued. The droll performances, to die for.
6. "IN BRUGES"
Hit men are people, too, you know. They work hard like the rest of us, and they need to get away for a little rest and relaxation now and then. Lowlife Irish killers Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) don't know why their R&R has to be in Belgium, but that's the order from Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and when Harry talks, Ray and Ken listen in this tragicomic, darkly existential thriller, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, chock full of killingly funny characters.
7. "UP THE YANGTZE"
China's colossal Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project will generate 26,000 megawatts when complete -- but not before emptying out nine large cities and displacing 2 million people. Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang provides the micro to show the macro in this powerful documentary about the dam's impact on rich, poor and entrepreneurial Chinese alike.
8. "THE READER"
In post-WWII Germany, teenager Michael (David Kross) falls in (first) passionate love with loner Kate Winslet, who is twice his age -- and adores hearing him read to her. She mysteriously disappears but reappears eight years later when he is a law student observing the Nazi war crimes trials. This is a highly erotic, beautifully acted tale of crime and punishment, truth and reconciliation.
9. "SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE"
The Indian equivalents of Oliver Twist, Fagin and Regis Philbin meet up in this breathless Dickensian adventure directed by Danny Boyle. Mumbai is a chilling choice of location in light of the recent terrorist nightmare. But for two escapist hours, you can put that out of your mind and enjoy Dev Patel as the 18-year-old slum kid who answers correctly to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
10. "THE DARK KNIGHT"
Batman Christian Bale and DA Aaron Eckhart set out to clean up the remaining crime syndicates plaguing Gotham but find themselves prey to the ultimate freelance criminal mastermind known as The Joker. We know him as the late Heath Ledger, in a truly astounding performance to match the astounding special F/X.
That's the name of a senior citizens chorus in Northampton, Mass. and of this stirring documentary about them, in which hilarity and profundity both abound. "Stayin' Alive" is a daily challenge for them. Performing that disco dance song while attached to an oxygen pack is an even greater one. Their unique "reinterpretations" of pop songs don't consist of easy-listening stuff. They're power tunes like James Brown's "I Feel Good!" and Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia." This film is a poignant, triumphant experience in which the ravages of age disappear before your very ears.
"THE BAND'S VISIT"
Alexandria's Ceremonial Police Band triumphantly arrives to perform at the dedication of a new Arab cultural center in Israel. Trouble is, it triumphantly arrives in the wrong town. Somehow, the Egyptians were misrouted to Beitah Tiqva instead of Petah Tiqva (what a difference a consonant can make). It's an Israeli Lake Woebegone, whose residents welcome the Egyptians with folded arms -- a lousy place for a band to visit, but an excellent venue for writer-director Eran Kolirin's totally charming comedy drama.
Finally, no Best 10 List would be complete without a Worst 10 List to complement it. This year, that task has been simplified (and mercifully abbreviated) by a single movie that's so bad, it counts as all 10 bad films.
I refer, of course, to: "The Love Guru"! When the houselights dimmed before this Mike Myers disaster, an expectant hush fell over the crowd. It never lifted. It was like being in an audience consisting entirely of mutes and mimes. Maharishis are no more lampoon-proof than priests, rabbis or imams. But they're decidedly unfunny here, mixed in with the Toronto Maple Leafs (who also aren't funny -- and should be called the Maple Leaves).
Well, there's a single mildly amusing spoof of Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, containing the lyric: "Surely you are a goddess who fills my heart with lugubrious recalcitrance."
But it's not worth the pain or the price of admission.
First Published December 26, 2008 12:00 am